|Steve Brooks, MD, MBA, FACC|
What impact did the Sarnoff Fellowship year have on your career?
My Sarnoff Fellowship year had a tremendous impact on my career. Every opportunity I have had professionally has stemmed from my Sarnoff experience, and the lessons that I learned that year taught me how to think critically and scientifically, tools which I have used daily throughout my career. take a year off and immerse myself in a research opportunity at a top lab was truly the perfect opportunity.
For my fellowship year, I joined the lab of Dr. C. William Balke at the University of Maryland. I had tremendous mentoring that year, working in 3 different labs at Maryland investigating EC-Coupling in heart failure. We used confocal microscopy and immuno-fluorescence to investigate calcium currents and myocyte contractility. There were no commercially available confocal microscopes at the time, and in two of the labs the investigators had built the microscopes from scratch. Every student who entered the lab made an electronic circuit to control the flow-bath which housed the myocytes under the microscope. In the lab I was given great freedom to ask questions, and then worked with my mentors to formulate a plan of investigation. As was the culture of the lab, we would then build the means to investigate. This was science on a cellular level with high tech tools and techniques, and no script or off the shelf means to perform the experiments. It was up to the lab staff, in conjunction with our PIs to work out the details
In college I was conflicted between a career in science as a PhD or a career in medicine. After choosing med school at Pitt, I continued to question if I had made the right choice. On one of my third year clinical rotations our teaching attending, Dr. James Shaver, asked us medical students how to get a message about the Sarnoff Fellowship to the rest of our class. He detailed the opportunity and it struck a nerve. I already knew that I wanted to be a cardiologist, and the opportunity to.
After a fantastic and productive Sarnoff year, I returned to Pitt as a fourth year student at the same time Dr. Barry London was recruited. He was interested in the research of K+ currents, and had used related techniques. Together, we built his lab. I was tasked with replicating the immuno-fluorescent microscopy setup from my Sarnoff year in the lab at Maryland. Taking the lessons I learned from that year, I teamed up with Pitt's machine and electronics shop, and together we built a rig and started to run experiments. It was an incredible experience for a fourth year medical student to be tasked with this responsibility, and it became a passion.
I was fortunate to remain at Pitt for residency and continued doing basic research with Dr. London pre and post call. I had the basic science bug, and when I matched at Pitt for Cardiology, a career in academia was my goal. Unfortunately/fortunately, the lure of the Cathlab was too great, and I once again got away from science, favoring the clinical and procedural. Intervention offered the same thrill as the research labs. I could be a MacGyver, considering the physiologic problem, and then choosing the right equipment from a giant tool chest to solve the problem with my own hands. While not cellular research, the process was similar and very rewarding.
Just before leaving for Thanksgiving holiday to travel back to Baltimore during my interventional fellowship, I checked the ACC website for jobs. One read; "Wanted-Interventional Cardiologist, University of Maryland. Please contact Dr. C. William Balke, Head of Cardiology.” I spoke to him from the road, had an interview the next day and was offered my first job as an attending physician that day.
My Sarnoff year taught me the research skills, a love of science and an approach to problem solving. It also provided a network of contacts and opened up opportunities that would never have been possible for me without the fellowship year. I like to joke about my pathway and many positions to date in science, academia, private practice and now at FDA, that in my career, I am lost, but making good time. I have had an incredible ride so far, and at each stop I have applied all of my past lessons and skills, and picked up new perspectives, techniques and experiences. This attitude and approach is the direct result of my Sarnoff year, and I can't wait to see what tomorrow brings.
Why should medical students consider the Sarnoff Fellowship apart from other programs?
There are many opportunities for medical students who are interested in basic science to take a finite period of time away from medical school, in a top-notch laboratory under the auspices of a prestigious fellowship program. What is different about the Sarnoff Fellowship Program is the infrastructure and the organization that comes with this year. They have a stubborn and indefatigable need to act as a family and support and further your career during and after that year ends. This is evident from the beginning. The Sarnoff sponsors, supporters and alumni are among the most accomplished and dynamic people in medicine and science. They are also selfless and dedicated to their fellows, past and present. This is evident in the career and scientific advice, mentoring and lifelong networking that occurs amongst the group. As a Sarnoff Fellow you become a member of this incredible family that will mentor and shepherd you through any of your future endeavors. It is a unique brotherhood, with unprecedented opportunities for collaboration and individual growth that extend far beyond that one year off of school.
What are your professional aspirations?
In my current job as a medical officer at FDA in the Division of Cardiovascular Devices, I help to regulate cardiac devices. This involves collaboration with FDA and industry engineers, chemists, veterinarians, and statisticians to plot testing programs for devices, design and then review clinical trials, and ultimately decide on the approval or disapproval of the devices. All the techniques that I learned as a Sarnoff fellow in physiology, machinery and engineering, in the scientific method and approach to science in the lab, and clinically in the Cathlab using devices to treat patients, has come to bear in my daily work. After getting an MBA at Johns Hopkins, I have gotten the opportunity to become involved in more public health initiatives through the FDA, which has been tremendously rewarding. I think that for my next step, I would like to apply all of these experiences and knowledge to enter industry or finance. I enjoy the entrepreneurial aspect of product development and would like to investigate at as a career, evaluating and developing new technologies.
What is your greatest professional accomplishment?
I have had several professional moments in science and academia that are important to me and that I treasure, but my greatest professional accomplishment is my incredible family, whom I love dearly. In my career I am challenged daily and I love coming to work. Each step has been rewarding and each keeps building upon the previous one. By leaving clinical medicine I have continued to advance my career in a way that thrills me, and I am home every night with my family, drive the kids to school two days a week when I work from home, and spend terrific quality time with them all. Through the FDA I have had a seat at the table with leaders in regulatory government, academia and industry as we plot the course of the development and testing of new technologies. I feel like a partner in innovation, helping to bring innovative and lifesaving tools to the American public, and I am home at 5:30 with kids who are only insane because that is their nature, not out of dysfunction.
What is your most memorable Sarnoff moment?
My most memorable Sarnoff moment came at the Spring 2002 annual meeting as the five police cars released a group of us on our own recognizance at the Lincoln Memorial. The year before someone had said that if you stood on the top of Abe's head, you could see the tip of the Washington Monument in the reflecting pool. This seemed plausible and deserved our attention. We got up to his shoulder, when 20 feet up from the ground we realized that free-climbing his head was probably not a great idea (We still couldn't see the tip of the monument though). We wisely abandoned our quest. After September 11th, 2001, the security at the monument increased just a little bit. That next spring we decided to try again, with the same result. We had barely gotten down from the shoulder when a good number of DC's finest surrounded us. They must have sensed our scientific yearning and quest for knowledge because they let us all go.
What are your hobbies?
I enjoy skiing and outdoor activities such as camping, hiking and mountain-biking. During my Sarnoff year I used some of the stipend for a down-payment on a 1994 Land Rover Defender, which is still in great condition. My family and I are Rover nuts.